Sleep apnea is a relatively common sleep disorder in which a person experiences many breathing pauses during a night’s sleep. Sleep apnea puts a person at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and more, so it’s essential to treat it to prevent serious health complications.
This articles discusses the various treatment options for sleep apnea.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea occurs when people have pauses in breathing, sometimes lasting 10 seconds or longer, during sleep. Some people may have hundreds of these pauses during the night.
This interrupted breathing and fragmented sleep results in physiological changes, including oxygen deprivation and sudden heart rate and blood pressure increase. Over time, this causes changes in the body that can lead to dangerous health complications.
Who Is Most Likely to Have Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is more common in people of advanced ages, men, and people with obesity. However, it can occur in women, children, and babies, too.
Sleep apnea symptoms can seriously impact a person’s life, from mental health to job performance and interpersonal relationships.
Some symptoms include:
There are various causes of sleep apnea.
Most commonly, there is a physical obstruction of the upper airway, including the nose, tongue, or soft palate. This could be due to structural factors (like a deviated septum or enlarged tonsils), or other factors like obesity, drinking alcohol or smoking.
Certain medications, like opioids, antihistaminesand benzodiazepinescan also cause sleep apnea.
There are multiple treatment options available for sleep apnea. The correct treatment for you will depend on individual factors like the severity of your sleep apnea, the root cause, and the type of sleep apnea.
Positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy is usually the first-line treatment for sleep apnea. However, there can be exceptions in cases of mild sleep apnea or when dental appliances are appropriate.
All PAP devices involve a mask covering the nose and mouth and delivering airflow to keep the upper airway open.
There are a few different types of PAP therapy devices. The two most common types include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): CPAP is considered the gold standard treatment for sleep apnea and has been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms and improving quality of life. It involves continuous airflow at one single pressure. However, some people do not tolerate CPAP well, in which case other PAP devices and therapies may be considered.
- Bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP): BiPAP machines are similar to CPAP but involve two different air pressures for inhaling and exhaling. A BiPAP machine may be tried if CPAP therapy is not tolerated. It is also a more successful treatment for central sleep apnea.
Other types of assistive devices to treat sleep apnea include dental appliances or oral mandibular advancement devices. Depending on individual needs, these may advance the lower jaw or stop the tongue from blocking the upper airway.
There are over 100 oral appliances that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat sleep apnea. Custom-made oral mandibular advancement devices are effective for mild-moderate sleep apnea.
Dental appliances may be preferred over PAP therapy by some people because it is less invasive and often more affordable and more comfortable.
PAP therapy is highly effective when used consistently and correctly, but it is not a cure for sleep apnea. Apnea episodes will return if PAP therapy is discontinued.
Some lifestyle changes may improve symptoms for people with mild sleep apnea. These recommended changes include:
- Weight loss: In people who have sleep apnea and obesity, losing weight may help relieve symptoms. This can work by shrinking tongue fat. Keep in mind that sleep apnea can make weight loss difficult, and not everyone with sleep apnea has obesity.
- Reducing or eliminating alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant. Drinking alcohol, particularly at night, can increase breathing pauses during sleep by causing tissue to relax into the upper airway. Those with sleep apnea should consider quitting alcohol.
- Quitting smoking: Smoking makes sleep apnea worse. Tobacco can cause the upper airway to swell and increase obstruction. Quitting smoking can help your health in many ways, including improving sleep apnea symptoms.
- side sleeping: Sleeping on your back can exacerbate sleep apnea episodes. Switching to side sleeping has been shown to help reduce these episodes. Using a wedge pillow may help adjust to this new sleeping position.
- Nasal sprays or breathing strips: These over-the-counter options may help reduce snoring and sleep apnea symptoms for people with nasal congestion or sinus issues.
For some people with sleep apnea, surgery may be appropriate. However, there is expert debate on the role of surgery. Surgery is typically performed if a person does not respond adequately to CPAP therapy and if they have structural obstructions that can be addressed through surgery.
Some surgeries that can treat sleep apnea include:
- Tonsillectomy: The tonsils are removed, which can be an obstruction for some people. This is particularly found in children with sleep apnea.
- Somnoplasty: Soft tissue in the uvula or soft palate is reduced through radiofrequency.
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty: Soft tissue in the soft palate or back of the throat is surgically removed to widen the airway.
- Nasal surgery: This can include the surgical correction of a deviated septum or other nasal abnormalities that may be causing an obstruction.
- Maxillomandibular advancement: An invasive surgery typically reserved for severe sleep apnea, in which the lower facial structures are moved forward to create a wider airway.
- Hypoglossal nerve stimulator: The insertion of a pacemaker that signals the hypoglossal nerve to contract the tongue and upper airway during sleep to improve breathing.
There are some alternative remedies for sleep apnea that don’t involve assistive devices or surgery. You should discuss alternative remedies with your healthcare provider and use them in combination with an approved plan of care.
Some alternative remedies for sleep apnea include:
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves sticking thin needles along the body’s “acupressure points.” A 2016 systematic review found that acupuncture was effective at improving sleep apnea symptoms and improving oxygen saturation. However, many of these studies were biased.
- Orofacial or myofunctional therapy: In this therapy, the facial muscles are strengthened, and the tongue position is improved. Myofunctional therapy has been used to treat sleep apnea since the 1990s. A systematic review found that it can reduce sleep apnea by 50% in adults and 62% in children.
Leaving your sleep apnea untreated can be extremely risky.
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health complications, like stroke, diabetes, cardiac arrhythmias, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, depression, and more.
Some risk factors for sleep apnea—like age, sex, and genetics—you can’t control.
However, there are some modifiable lifestyle factors that you can control, including adopting a healthy diet, reducing or eliminating alcohol (particularly at night), and quitting smoking. These can all help prevent sleep apnea from developing.
Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder in which a person experiences breathing pauses many times during the night. Mild sleep apnea may be treated with lifestyle changes. Treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea includes PAP therapy devices, custom dental appliances, and, in some cases, surgery.
A Word From Verywell
Some people hesitate to treat their sleep apnea with lifestyle changes because they can be difficult to make. But the risks of untreated sleep apnea make these changes worth the effort. Treating sleep apnea in whatever form necessary is critical. If you experience sleep apnea symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you die from sleep apnea?
Yes, you can die from sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea can cause serious health issues, including stroke, diabetes, heart failure, and sudden cardiac death, among others.
Can sleep apnea be cured?
In certain very mild cases of sleep apnea, lifestyle changes, such as losing bodyweight, may cure sleep apnea. For most people, treatment with a CPAP machine or dental device can manage symptoms but must be continued, or symptoms will return.
What does sleep apnea sound like?
A sleep apnea episode may sound like a period of quiet (as the person stops breathing) followed by a sudden gasping or choking. This can occur 30+ times per hour, or hundreds of times per night, so it may also sound like loud snoring.